Students develop mobile apps to help them with life skills

Forty university students worked together during two simultaneous workshops on mobile apps that will be used as tools to access information about topics such as sexual and reproductive health, safety on campus, mental health and well-being as well as career guidance.

The workshops, that took place in July 2022, were part of UNESCO’s project Our Rights, Our Lives, Our Future PLUS (O3 PLUS). More than 100 participants gathered in Lusaka, Zambia, and Harare, Zimbabwe, for the workshops, The Standard reported.

The apps, dubbed ‘Future +’ in Zimbabwe and ‘Ownu’ in Zambia, will be used by students in 12 higher and tertiary education institutions (HTEIs) in each country. Students selected the names of the mobile applications during a first meeting organised earlier in 2022.

They also selected topics that are important to them, such as alcohol and drug abuse, sexual and reproductive health, general and mental health, safety, HIV/Aids, and career and financial management.

Topics in the category of SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) information students selected include relationships, heartbreak, semester marriages, multiple partners, pregnancy, abortion, contraception, menstrual hygiene, cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections, or STIs.

Under general and mental health, they picked nutrition, personal hygiene and physical activity, mental illness, depression, suicide, eating disorders and academic distress. Other topics include gender-based violence, cybercrimes, bullying, campus safety, and etiquette and grooming in the context of career guidance.

Students can freely request information

During the workshops students collaborated with sexual reproductive health and rights experts, higher and tertiary education representatives, IT teams, government officials, and representatives of UNESCO and civil society organisations to work on the mobile applications.

As mobile phones are widely used by students on Zambian and Zimbabwean HTEI campuses, the apps are viewed as a solution that will offer a friendly, safe, secure, diverse and tolerant space where young people, especially young women, can freely request SRHR information and improve their knowledge of sexual and reproductive health issues.

The apps are expected to promote respect for all values of ubuntu while providing a pleasant user experience for all users, including those with a disability or impairment.

The Future + and OwnU mobile applications will be compatible with the accessibility functions of Android and iOS and will work both online and offline. Students will be able to upload photos, audio, videos, and other attachments.

When they become fully operational, the apps are expected to have functions and features that include an instant messaging tool for students to connect to available well-being counsellors who will provide counselling services, SRHR articles, an automated chatbot that will provide answers to frequently asked questions and a panic button or alarm that will connect students to the nearest emergency service depending on the situation: for example, police, ambulance service, other students close by on campus, and HTEI security.

The apps will also be able to show students where to get access to help services like a clinic and a police station. A services directory will be provided for offline users.

Gamification feature to stimulate participation

Another feature of the apps will be student forums whereby students can get help with SRHR issues, academic matters, advice from peers or just have a good chat about what is on their minds. Students can contribute to the forum through comments, sharing and responses.

A quick-notifications feature will allow the administration to send news, messages and notifications directly to the students. All students will be able to view notifications from their dashboards.

To encourage use of the app, a gamification feature will be added. This will award points for participation to students leading to membership badges like silver, bronze, gold and platinum. Students will get more points for being active on the app by commenting on articles, participating in forums and inviting friends.

Students will sign up on the apps using their university credentials as some services will be customised for individual colleges. Each signed-up student will have a member account and portal on which they can edit their personal details, and avatar and invite friends to join the app.

UNESCO is now recruiting an education, development, and public health expert to review and edit the SRHR content developed by students for the mobile apps to ensure high-quality content and accuracy of information. The content includes an estimated 45 articles of 400 words each and frequently asked questions and answers about SRHR.

New way of communicating applauded

Mitchel Chimbga, a student at the University of Zimbabwe, sees the app as an opportunity to improve access to SRHR information. “Traditional routes for sensitive information exchange are being eroded by cultural changes and urbanisation.

“Young people used to be taught about sexual issues by their uncles (boys) and aunties (girls) but that option is no longer available in today’s world,” Chimbga told University World News.

“This application, along with other promising new means of communication such as social media platforms, will help improve SRHR information dissemination to young people,” Chimbga said.

Tawanda Andrew Gava, a peer educator working with the Female Student Network and SAYWHAT organisations, told University World News that the app will help peer educators in effectively disseminating information to students.

“Sometimes students don’t ask questions or open up on issues that are affecting them because they are shy or fear being judged. Features like the automated chatbot and frequently asked questions will help solve that. “The gamification feature is very essential because students learn better and are more engaged to issues through edutainment.”

App will ensure privacy

“In my experience as a peer educator, I have found that students are already deeply affected by SRHR issues by the time they enrol in university so I believe that we should make resources like this app easily accessible to all adolescents instead of just waiting for them to enrol for college first.”

Another SRHR practitioner, Ruvimbo Chivere, who is working with the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, told University World News that many students lack access to adequate and relevant information as far as sexual reproductive health and rights are concerned.

“Among the students, some do not even know about basic information such as how to wear a condom, pre-exposure prophylaxis, and post-exposure prophylaxis.”

“The app is what students need right now. We are living in a technological era in which digital activity is high, especially among young people and students. I think the app will have an impact in terms of achieving enhanced accessibility of SRHR information because it is accessible from everywhere and both online and offline,” she said.

“The app is also critical in terms of privacy. At present, students find it difficult to access SRHR information at clinics because of our patriarchal culture. Instead of getting SRHR services, students are judged about early indulgence and so forth. With this app, students need not worry about that any more.”

Knowledge about SRHR still limited

According to the project website, “The 03 PLUS Project seeks to ensure that young people in higher and tertiary education institutions in the East and Southern Africa regions realise positive health, education, and gender equality outcomes through sustained reductions in new HIV infections, unintended pregnancy, and gender-based violence,” according to the project website.

The project aims to institutionalise health and well-being programmes for students while engaging leadership for long-term commitment and sustainability.

UNESCO aims to reach 108,254 students with accurate and comprehensive rights-based sexuality education in 24 HTEIs across Zambia and Zimbabwe and hopes that the project will enable students to reach their full educational potential and contribute more effectively to the development of their countries and region as graduates, professionals and young leaders. UNESCO’s target represents 80% of the 135,318 students in the 24 institutions.

Contrary to the general belief that students in higher and tertiary education settings have enough knowledge that helps them to avoid poor health outcomes, a baseline study conducted in all 24 participating institutions across Zambia and Zimbabwe shows that too many young people are still growing into adulthood with limited knowledge about their reproductive health and sexuality.

According to the survey, a sizeable proportion of unmarried students do not use condoms during sex (37.2% and 25.2% among females and 24.6% and 13.2% among males in Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively). Furthermore, 24% of female students in Zambia and 16.4% of female students in Zimbabwe have experienced some form of sexual and gender-based violence in institutions of higher learning.